The association between occupations that involve night shift work (a surrogate for exposure to light at night with subsequent melatonin suppression) and breast cancer risk is uncertain. We therefore conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies to assess the effects of night work on breast cancer risk. Data sources were MEDLINE from January 1960 to January 2005, experts in the field, bibliographies, and abstracts. Search terms included night work terms, flight personnel terms, cancer terms, and risk terms. Independent data extraction by two authors using standardised forms was performed. The method of DerSimonian and Laird was used to derive combined estimates and Egger's; and Begg and Mazumdar's tests for publication bias were conducted. Based on 13 studies, including seven studies of airline cabin crew and six studies of other night shift workers, the aggregate estimate for all studies combined was 1.48 (95% CI, 1.36-1.61), with a similar significant elevation of breast cancer risk among female airline cabin crew (standardised incidence ratio (SIR), 1.44; 95% CI, 1.26-1.65), and female night workers (relative risk (RR), 1.51; 95% CI, 1.36-1.68) separately. We found some evidence suggesting confounding due to incomplete adjustment for breast cancer risk factors, with smaller effects in the studies that more completely adjusted for reproductive history and other confounding factors. Egger's and Begg and Mazumdar's tests for publication bias showed no significant asymmetry (P>0.05). Studies on night shift work and breast cancer risk collectively show an increased breast cancer risk among women. Publication bias is unlikely to have influenced the results.